Origins and Evolution of Maoism in Argentina, 1968-1971

Carlos Mignon & Adam Fishwick. Labor History. Volume 59, Issue 4. August 2018.

An apparently strange phenomenon in the history of ideas, Maoism was the only new ideological current to emerge in the western Hemisphere after the Second World War. With constant references to popular China, but situated in a local context, Maoism developed as a unique ideology with a particular physiognomy that was forged in the sphere of the political left. In Argentina, the principle organisations that represented it—the Communist Vanguard and the Revolutionary Communist Party—were deeply involved in the class struggles of the industrial proletariat of Córdoba. Following an explication of our understanding of the role of political ideas in labour struggles through the work of the Chilean historical sociologist Tomás Moulian, we describe two foundational phases for these parties: the organisational and ideological. We situate these in the broader context of both the historical development of the working class in Córdoba and the explosive moments of Cordobazo. From here, we assess the tensions and contradictions in these phases and discuss the impact on their efforts to become the ‘vanguard’ party of the working class, thereby showing the importance of tracing the origins and evolution of Maoism for understanding the radical labour history of Córdoba.


During the political tumult of the turn of the 1970s, Maoism came to play an integral role in the emergent political radicalism of workers in Argentina. This reached previously unprecedented heights and (to an extent) began to transcend the constraints of the Peronist trade union federations that had dominated the labour movement since the 1940s. The focus of this paper is on the extent and limitations of the interpellation of the two leading Maoist parties—the Communist Vanguard (VC) and Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR)—in the one of the leading industrial sectors of the time: the automobile industry in Córdoba. Utilising archive materials including internal party documents, this paper discloses the development of the organisational and ideological trajectories of these parties as they engaged with an active, radicalised fraction of the working class. We argue that the relative weakness of their organisational influence over the workers (the vast majority of whom remained affiliated to Peronist federations even during the most tumultuous periods of the 1960s and 1970s) was belied by the distinctive local form of Maoist ideology that developed dialectically in interaction between workers and the parties. Most significantly, in the period of worker protests in the ‘savage Córdoba’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this ideology of resistance, intransigence, anti-capitalism and anti-bureaucracy gained unprecedented salience amongst the Cordoban industrial working class.

In this paper, we focus on the origins and early evolution of Maoism in Argentina, assessing the organisational and ideological phases undergone by these parties as the VC and the PCR sought to become ‘vanguards’ for the working class between 1968 and 1971. To understand the development of these ideas, and their imbrication amongst the most radicalised fractions of the working class, we frame our discussion in the work of the Chilean historical sociologist Tomás Moulian and his conceptualisation of the development of Chilean Marxist ideas. This framing allows us to address two important sets of questions on the development of Maoist ideology and the significance of its influence over the workers of the automotive industry. First, how can the development and formation of Argentinean Maoism be conceptualised in the context of party-worker relations? How did the ideas themselves develop in the context of conflict in the workplaces of the automobile industry and across the city? And how was the motivation and mobilisation of the workers transformed through engagement with the Maoist activists of the PCR and VC? Second, why did Maoist ideas gain such traction amongst the workers in the industry? While it did not displace the hegemony of Peronism in the Argentinean labour movement, how can we understand its popularity in the nascent formation of the informal groupings in this sector who would later constitute a nucleus of the clasista militant labour movement?

The paper is structured as follows. In the first section, we explicate the conceptual system developed by Tomás Moulian for understanding the ideological interpellation of radical political ideas and working-class organisation. Building on his interpretation of Chilean Marxist parties, we show how his understanding of ideas ‘in use’ can help to comprehend the development and influence of Maoism in the labour movement in Argentina. Second, we provide a brief context to our study that situates the development of the VC and PCR in the specificities of the Cordoban industrial working class, as well as outlining the significance of the Cordobazo in 1969 to its political development. In the two sections that follow this, we then examine the origins and early evolution of the two Maoist parties in the context of Córdoba. Here we show how the parties encountered internal organisational limits to their expansion, but also a growing ideological influence over an increasingly radicalised fraction of the working class in the city clustered around the automotive industry. Finally, we conclude by addressing the relationship between workers and the Maoist parties and how understanding this political process can help us to better understand the radical history of Córdoba’s working class.

Understanding the Development of Maoism in Argentina

To comprehend the ideological development of the two relatively small Maoist parties and their influence amongst the industrial working class in Córdoba, we turn first to the conceptual frame provided by Tomás Moulian. In his work on Marxist ideas in Chile, Moulian shows how political ideas provided a distinctive political and intellectual set of tools not only for understanding social life, but as a guide for action and a means for the construction of particular political and institutional forms (Moulian, p. 107). It is in this sense that ideas play an integral role in social and political life—in the constitution not just of the ideas themselves, but also the reconstitution of the idea as a practical political tool and the subject that wields it. As outlined here, his framing of how ideas are mobilised ‘in use’ is particularly important to our interpretation of Maoism in Argentina: ‘the operative concept of ‘in use’ has special importance. This refers to the fact that the cognitive objects that are studied will be specific conceptual systems that operate in a historically determined cultural field’ (ibid., p. 111).

Ideas as ‘conceptual systems’ possess a dynamism that is brought out in their use by intellectuals, activists and individuals that mobilise them in distinctive ways, moulding them within the social, cultural and political context in which they are situated. Moreover, as Moulian goes on to argue, once these ideas extend beyond the intellectual sphere they are transformed and recast for the purposes of political action and practice:

in these cases, in the network of circulation a specific form of production [of the conceptual system] is generated through its employment as a pre-existing cognitive product. This form, at times deliberately simplified, generates a cognitive object that can be called de-production … In each step a simplifying reduction is made to the scale of necessity of the users, each time more distant from the circuit of the original practitioners. (ibid., p. 111)

The ‘cognitive products’ of ideas and ideology, therefore, are both produced and ‘de-produced’ through their circulation and their use. As they move from the intellectual to the political sphere and back again, they are imbued with the needs and concerns of the ‘user’ and simplified, repackaged, and even degraded by the demands of the social and cultural context.

Such a perspective is particularly pertinent in the context of Maoism in Argentina. Specifically, we can trace how the interaction between political activists operating in an intellectual sphere overwritten by domestic and international debates and workers mobilising in the factories transformed the particular physiognomy of Argentinean Maoism. Organisationally and ideologically, the PCR and VC did not simply transplant the Chinese model to the country. As is noted by Otto Vargas, a leading historian of the PCR, these local Maoist parties comprised a complex range of influences that rendered them very different from their counterparts elsewhere. In particular, it was the urban character of these parties and their cadres, comparable to that of France and distinct from China and more well-known counterparts in Peru and other parts of Latin America that makes the experience of the VC and PCR in Argentina particularly interesting to explore.

As we show below, Maoist ideas in Argentina (initially) circulated amongst a relatively small party cadre that, increasingly, came into direct contact with the distinct ‘cultural field’ of the Cordoban industrial working class. From here, the ideas (alongside the organisational and political strategies) took on a distinctive tone reflective of the specificities of the conflicts faced by workers with firms, the state, and, eventually, core facets of the Peronist labour federations. To explain the development of political ideas ‘in use’, Moulian explicates the distinct levels of ‘products’ utilised by intellectuals, activists and others. For our purposes, the ideas that circulated both amongst party activists and those disseminated to the workers themselves (the primary source material that comprises the basis of this study) were third and fourth tier ‘cognitive products’.

First and second tier products are, respectively, the classic texts from which the theoretical positions are derived (i.e. Mao and Lenin) and the theoretical works produced by local intellectuals aimed at creating a local theoretical perspective. Third tier texts are those with organisational or strategic ends intended to ‘establish scientific propositions, with the character of law, on political action of a revolutionary character … to define a course of action, to establish goals, adequate means to those ends, and to foresee effects’. Fourth tier products, finally, are ‘didactic’, inasmuch as they are produced with the aim of

being reproductions that approximate, that make accessible concepts and theories to a certain type of user. In that case it is a transposition from a scientific code to another simplified one, where the principal criterion of the presentation is educational. (ibid., p. 130)

It is these latter two ‘products’ that are of most relevance for understanding and conceptualising Maoist ideas and their use by workers in conflicts mobilised in Córdoba, inasmuch as it is at these junctures that they were reshaped through practical political action.

To speak of de-production, or even of degradation, of the ideas, in this moment, however, seems inappropriate for conceptualising the transmission and re-articulation of Maoist ideas in the context of the political conflict—of their tangible political ‘use’—in Córdoba. Here, instead, it is useful to examine the dialectic of intellectual production and political practice through the lens of relations between workers and political activists in the workplace and through the conflicts in which they engage. This calls into question, moreover, the ostensible distance between the production of the cognitive product and its mobilisation and transformation through use. PCR and VC activists, in many instances, were directly linked to the Cordoban automobile factories where affiliated workers mobilised and so shared the experiential and cultural fields of the workplace. Maoist parties, as such, were integral to this process and in these spaces. To quote at length from Moulian on this link:

The relation between theory, consciousness, and practice is established through the party and this is present at each link of the chain. The party also plays an operative-mobilising function that implies the setting of goals, the establishment of means, the incentivization of action, as much through resources of cognitive orientation (that correspond to the theoretical functions) as through expressive and symbolic functions. The party appears at all stages, it will be from the side of theory, from the side of consciousness formation or from the side of mobilization. In other words, it is present in each moment of the process of production-use. (ibid., p. 133)

The Maoist activists of the VC and the PCR played precisely this complex role. Despite their relative institutional weaknesses, particularly vis-à-vis the Peronist federations, they were highly significant in the informal networks of workers behind ‘spontaneous’ mobilisation, supported the organisation of autonomous grassroots worker committees in the workplace, established further goals and means to achieve these in the waves of strikes, mobilisations and factory occupations, and developed, in conjunction with workers themselves, important notions of workplace control that would provide a fundamental strategic and organisational basis to future struggles.

This leads us, then, to framing the second set of questions posed as to the popularity and permeation of Maoist parties amongst the industrial working class of Córdoba. To begin with, in contrast to the overarching Peronist ideology that emphasised stable negotiation and, in the years preceding the uprisings in Córdoba and beyond, the use of limited, ostensibly radical forms of labour protest by Vandor and the Peronist federations (mass mobilisation, occupations, kidnappings, violence) as a pressure for negotiation (Schneider, p. 216-228), the ideology (and forms of action) propounded by the VC and PCR offered something distinct in the political sphere of the labour movement. For workers who had experienced deepening exploitation in some of the most modern industries in the country, who had been denied adequate political representation, and who had faced the violent repressive apparatus of the state (and even the unions) on more than a few occasions, the ideology of confrontation and rejection could be articulated more clearly with their own experiences.

Most importantly, moreover, as will be shown in what follows, the Maoist ideas developed in concrete contexts of urban working class in Argentina provided a necessarily creative ideological moment for workers across these industries. Against the increasingly stagnant ideas and actions propounded by the Peronist union bureaucracies and in the febrile atmosphere that followed the Cordobazo (which will be outlined below), the radical vision of the Maoist parties offered an alternative approach to workplace struggles. In the words of Alain Badiou, it offered

the element of inhumanity that human creation makes appear that part of human ‘nature’ which does not yet exist but must become … a symbolic representation of this humanity that exists beyond itself, in the fearsome and fertile element of the inhuman. (Badiou, p. 42)

The ‘inhuman’, in this sense, was the radical political vision offered by the Maoists that was redefined in the experiential context of the Cordoban working class as a set of ideas (or to reflect the previous section, as ‘cognitive products’) that ideologically transcended the pragmatic and very ‘human’ (or currently existing) ideological and political practices of Peronism.

Working-Class Formation in Córdoba and the Cordobazo

Before turning to examine the origins and evolution of the urban-based Maoist parties and their influence in the labour movement in Argentina, we present a short overview of the formation of the working class in automobile industry of Córdoba, the site that constitutes the context of our study. Córdoba is a city with a labour history distinct to that of Buenos Aires, the locus around which much twentieth-century labour history has been written, and it is one that has been intimately tied to the development of the automobile industry during the 1960s. Three features of this development are significant to understanding, first, how the distinctive form of Maoism we address in this paper was able to permeate the emerging working-class organisations of the city and, second, its evolution and influence in the tumultuous uprisings of the ‘savage Córdoba’ of 1969-1971, to which we return shortly.

First, the industrial working class developed in the city along a rather different historical trajectory to that of the Peronist working class of the capital. Most importantly, the Cordoban working class was a relatively recent formation. As James Brennan has shown, its development was directly tied to the growth of the mechanical industries in the city, most notably around automobiles (Brennan, p. 354, 355). Hence, as this sector developed, so too did the distinct identities of the Cordoban working class. Prior to the dramatic expansion of the automobile industry in the city, industrial workers were concentrated in the state-run aeronautical firm IAME, which was founded in the late 1920s. Heavy investment in training and relatively advanced technology, combined with relative isolation of workers from the development of the Peronist labour movement, led to a distinctive composition of this initially narrow working-class formation (Mignon, p. 15). Not only did the relative isolation make it well suited to the rigours of the new workplaces of the automotive industry (Gordillo, p. 167), but as industry rapidly expanded into the 1950s and 1960s, it created space for the radical political ideas of the Maoist parties that we trace below.

A second, and linked, factor in the development of the industrial working class in the city came with the roots of this rapid expansion. Workers in the growing automotive sector during this period were mostly new migrants to the city. As documented elsewhere, over 50 per cent of the population growth in the city between 1947 and 1970 can be attributed to internal migration from the countryside (Mignon, p. 14). This derived from a particular developmental trajectory of the automotive sector in which the demand for relatively low-skilled workers drove its expansion, a process that has been explored at length elsewhere. The result, however, was the formation of a working class that, by the late 1960s, was ‘primarily male, young and unskilled’ (Mignon, p. 35, 36). This demographic point is important, as not only were workers historically isolated from the development of Peronist labour organisations, but many were also students, providing a concrete link to left-wing militants in the university (Brennan & Gordillo, p. 127). After the Cordobazo, these links would become increasingly important, with the workplaces of Fiat, IKA, and others providing the material spaces within which the radical vision of Maoist militants would move from internal party debates towards centre of the Cordoban labour movement.

The final element that allowed Maoist parties to directly influence the development of the Cordoban industrial working class through the automotive sector was the fragmented structure of the trade unions. Starting with the earliest entry of foreign capital into the sector during the late 1950s, agreements were reached between the state and firms to restrict access to the then powerful Metalworkers’ Union (UOM). Instead, automotive workers at IKA and other firms in the country, were forced to join the smaller and less powerful Mechanics and Automotive Transport Workers Union (SMATA) (Catalano & Novick, p. 49; Evans, Heath Hoeffel, & James, p. 135). Moreover, workers at Fiat, the other major automotive firm based in the city, were permitted only to join factory unions (Gordillo, p. 169-172). In a strategy intended to aid the growth and development of this nascent industrial sector, automotive workers were deliberately isolated from the most influential trade union federations, with the growing number of automobile manufacturing workers incorporated into the decentralised and historically ‘weaker’ SMATA. This decentralisation, however, enabled more democratic, participatory structures to emerge, providing greater space for the expansion of the emerging clasista left (Brennan, p. 294; Brennan & Gordillo, p. 480). Consequently, the attempt to pacify the new industrial working class of the city would backfire most dramatically by the late 1960s.

These features offered a fertile and febrile ground for the dissemination and circulation of the various political ideas in a process that extended dramatically with the 1969 Cordobazo. This was perhaps the most important uprising in Argentina of the twentieth century, marking a rupture in theory and practice for the left and the labour movement across the country. For our case, as we will show below, it was a crucial turning point in the link between industrial workers and the Maoist left in the city. It comprised a dual process of independent working-class mobilisation and the consolidation of emerging new political trends that would coalesce, by 1970, around the clasista trade unions that posed the most significant challenge to Peronist hegemony in the labour movement since the 1940s. Automotive workers were key figures in both of these processes. First, their independent self-organisation was at the heart of the initial uprising. The Cordobazo began on 29 May 1969 as workers from the IKA automobile factories marched on the centre of the city. Other workers—from metalworking plants and other major industries—marched alongside them and, in the face of violent police repression, collectively occupied neighbourhoods throughout the city. The occupation lasted only until the army retook the occupied areas the following morning, but, as we will show, the impact of these events was profound (Brennan, p. 153; Brennan & Gordillo, p. 485-490).

Second, in the aftermath of these events, automotive workers in Córdoba came also to pose the most direct challenge to the Peronist union federations that had dominated the labour movement for the last two decades. At the Fiat factories—Concord and Materfer—the previously pliant company unions were overtaken by workers less than 12 months later on 23 March 1970. This short-lived experience of radical, independent trade unionism—which would come to be known as clasismo—was inspired by the earlier events of the Cordobazo and marked a turning point for relations between the labour movement and the radical left (Brennan, p. 177-180; Schneider, p. 332, 333). It was this experience, moreover, that would inspire the insertion of the Maoist political parties and the labour movement in the city after 1972. Although slightly beyond the historical purview of this paper, it is important to note here the political leadership of SMATA by the PCR leading member René Salamanca after 1972. Elected as head of clasista Lista Marrón slate of trade union candidates in 1972, Salamanca grouped together a range of anti-bureaucratic tendencies that had begun to permeate the Cordoban labour movement after 1969. Again, demonstrating the distinct historical trajectory of the working class in the city, the success of this radical left leadership posed a direct challenge to the union leadership in Buenos Aires. It was, then, through this combined trajectory of working-class formation and the moment of rupture in the Cordobazo in 1969 that the Maoist left came to be inserted into, and was transformed by, the local industrial working class.

The PCR and the VC: The Tentative Construction of a Working-Class Party

Turning now to the origins of the VC and PCR, we can observe that the first ‘Marxist-Leninists’ were former activists of the traditional left, so their cultural and ideological legacy did not prepare them for going beyond a critique of ‘Moscow revisionism’. In the case of the VC, its founding group came from the Argentinean Socialist Vanguard Party (PSAV). Here we can highlight the figures of Elías Semán, Roberto Cristina, Saúl Micflic and Rubén Kriscautski. Still as a member of the PSAV, Semán (who would be the first general secretary of the VC between 1965 and 1968) published a document entitled ‘We Will Defeat Revisionism’. There he set out the position through a series of dichotomies, ‘Marxism and anti-Marxism’, ‘Leninism and anti-Leninism’, ‘reform or revolution’, through which he revealed the betrayal of the Argentinian Communist Party (PCA) and the necessity of constructing a large party of the proletariat:

the Argentinian Communist Party, that long ago—before the current controversy in the international Communist movement—followed a false direction detached from the interests of the working class to try and subordinate them to the bourgeoisie, has definitively abandoned the sole instrument capable of making possible a rectification. In effect, the leadership of the PCA, adhering to the contemporary revisionism and abandoning the historical lessons of the international communist movement led by Marx, Lenin and Stalin, denied today by revisionism, renounces the theoretical tool that would permit it to rectify its errors in leading the working class and integrating itself into a counterrevolutionary politics at the national and international level. As we join the global struggle against revisionism by locating the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party, we reaffirm the necessity of constituting the organized body of the working class, its vanguard, its Party … The presence of revisionism within the workers’ ranks is a danger paralysing the revolutionary capacity of the people. Therefore revisionists, with the actual leaders of the PCUS at their head, are the principal infiltrators in the ranks of the global proletariat. (Semán)

Taking this document as a political foundation, this group founded the Communist Vanguard on 5 April 1965. From the beginning, the party highlighted its differences from other tendencies opposing the pro-Soviet Communism, such as the ‘guerillaism’ and principally Trotskyism. In 1966, a report from the leaders of the VC stated that ‘the problem of Trotskyism in Argentina’ was an issue that should be confronted by the true ‘Marxist-Leninists’:

The errors of the existing revisionist leadership of the Argentinian Communist Party, in particular the errors from 1945 onwards, at the same time as opposing the objective interests of the working class and the people, indirectly fomented the heyday of the Trotskyist tendencies. This explains the number and abundance of groups of this kind in our country, and the necessity that once revisionism has abandoned the banners of Leninism, it will be entirely our responsibility to struggle against Trotskyism … To this it should be added the need to link the response to the deviations in the international communist movement, the antithesis of the antagonistic critique in itself and hence counterrevolutionary, of Trotskyism and its heirs. While a correct idea enriches itself through its development, an incorrect idea is corrupted moving away from reality… While a Marxist-Leninist idea enriches itself through practice, and is developed through this contact, a Trotskyist moves itself each time further from dialectical materialism and is wrecked on idealism. (Communist Vanguard)

We can identify two interesting features in these documents. First, from a strictly organisational perspective, this statement shows us that the Maoists of the VC were proposing that they function following the party model that they critiqued. In other words, by condemning the other forms of the left—fundamentally the ‘heresy of Trotskyism’—and opposing the Moscow model, it advocated the construction of a vanguard party following the same structures of the movement that Semán and his group had abandoned. Second, the constitution of a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ party would be forged through practice and contact ‘with the masses’, this being an indispensable condition of action for activists and the internal workings of the party. In this way, the practice of critique would prevent any form of bureaucratism in its ranks. In a circular from the National Leadership on the party work of 1969, it was already being denounced:

It is necessary to unleash steadfast battle with all forms of egoism and idleness within the party. It is not possible that the spirit of serving the people shown by the comrades who have gone off to join with the masses … coexists peacefully with the ideological forms of the bourgeoisie that they warn about within the Party … If these comrades raise consciousness of their weaknesses and show a disposition to combat them it is essential to help them in this fight. To help them to determine the cause of their vices, to help them establish a plan of rectification of their errors and to fulfil that plan … If repeated, efforts in this manner find no echo in the practice of the comrades who have regressed, it is necessary then to apply party discipline in agreement with the principles and the methods established in our Draft Statutes (Communist Vanguard, p. 15)

It is important to highlight the influence of the ‘Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ in this text. Taking the Chinese Communist Party as an example, it established permanent self-critique, submitting members to total commitment to the party, removing whichever of them displayed any ‘petty bourgeois’ signs. This was to ensure a strong presence amongst the working class.

We can also describe the creation of the PCR in the same terms. Known initially as the PC-National Committee of Revolutionary Recuperation (PC-CNRR), this organisation was founded on 6 January 1968 by members of the Communist Youth Federation (FJC). They maintained a strong opposition to the policies dictated by the Central Committee of the PCA (CC), personified by the figures of Vittorio Codovilla and Rodolfo Ghioldi. In its initial documents, the criticisms were directed at the strategies adopted by the duo Codovilla-Ghioldi (labelled as ‘opportunist CC’) that supported the initiative to construct an opposition against the dictatorship of General Onganía based on an alliance with the political representatives of the so-called ‘national bourgeoisie’.

At the same time, the forces of the nationalist bourgeoisie will tend to regroup, beyond the party divisions, incorporating Peronists, neo-Peronists, radicals, sectors of the provincial bourgeoisie … and military groups. Here too the opportunist CC has been hooked with its line of trust in the revolutionary capacities of the national bourgeoisie and its methodology of ‘working with all sides’, that ends by placing it in whirlpools that it believes it can push, when in reality it is being pushed … The opportunist CC starts with a Front-ist policy, similar to that undertaken by the Brazilian PC to dilute itself in the nationalist front that placed Goulart in government and that pushed to disaster the Brazilian Revolution of 1964. (National Central Committee of the Communist Party, p. 13)

For the authors of this report, the CC had abandoned its revolutionary leadership so as to adopt an evidently reformist policy, in line with the crisis that overcame the international communist movement. Because of that, the construction of a vanguard party was urgent and essential, to the ends of accelerating to the point of no return the degeneration of ‘modern revisionism’.

However, the organisational strategy of the PCR rested on a foundation too close to that which it criticised virulently. As such, the Party statutes approved during the I (First) Congress prefigured a structure of units around a centre (the CC chosen by Congress), with three fundamental levels: the centre, the intermediate leadership and the cells, with the latter being the basic unit of the organisation (Article 20). In respect of the rights and obligations of its members, the following was established:

Article 1—the PCR admits into its ranks the most enlightened, the most combative and the most selfless representatives of the working class … The PCR only admits into its ranks those considered revolutionaries by Party members …

Article 7—to elevate systematically his political, theoretical and militancy levels through revolutionary study and action; developing the political activity that is designated to the unit that he belongs …

Article 9—put the interests of the proletariat and hence those of the Party above those of himself.

Article 10—practice self-critique and critique when it is most important is the responsibility of the comrade and unit, it should be the most rigorous criticism and self-criticism.

Article 11—maintain at the cost of your life the secrets of the Party and be vigilant before class enemies. Strictly implement and enforce clandestine rules.

Article 12—apply unconditionally the resolutions of the Party once they are approved. Ensure the coherence of the party to strengthen its unity …

Article 15—participate in all meetings of the unit to which he belongs and express in them his opinion. Write his opinions so they can be published for the knowledge of the Party. Disagree with resolutions of his own units and superiors while continuing to comply with them once they are approved although the divergence is maintained. (Revolutionary Communist Party, p. 65, 66)

The organisational model adopted was ‘democratic centralism’, which according to theory, should eliminate the possibility that a minority could undermine the will of the majority. But in practice it constituted a ‘bureaucratic centralism’, where the grassroots didn’t have a chance to exercise control against the leadership, as they did not participate statutorily in the elaboration of the political line. Its role was one of total dependence towards its leaders, whilst the latter wielded a monopoly over the information concerning the organisation. The CC was the centre of power, which accumulated all the disciplinary powers and prerogatives, starting with the right of exclusion without the right to appeal. The type of structure wouldn’t have strengthened its functioning if it hadn’t added one original feature belonging to Mao Zedong: the internal critique at the interior of the Party as constituting a tool to strengthen the organisation. Within the VC, criticism within the party reinforced the commitment of activists and obliged them to ‘tighten their relation with the masses’, abandoning all material ambition to immerse themselves in the working class and to look for contact with the most class conscious workers. This method helped the activists to renounce any bourgeois comforts and as such, through revolutionary selflessness, atone for their social origins. In this way, hyper-centralisation was presented as an indispensable remedy to defend the organisation from ‘petty bourgeois’ deviations. However, a structure of this type translated into a growing separation between base and leadership. The leaders occupied themselves in the noble tasks: coordination, drafting the party newspaper; while the grassroots were charged with the real work.

As can be observed, the PCR as much as the VC yearned to reconstitute a structure that occupied the space they had abandoned or from which they had been expelled. The political tactic of the Maoists was that of constructing an anti-monopolistic, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist front, in turn with a working class allied to the peasantry and led by a Marxist-Leninist party that—distinct from that of the ‘revisionists and opportunists’—would maintain a political, ideological and organisational independence. However, at the high point of this organisational moment (1968-1969) many activists became aware of their weak insertion of the movement within the working class. It was here that the ‘ideological’ element gained strength, and would be essential in the battle to win the workers’ trust.

1970-1971: The Maoists in ‘Savage Córdoba’

The social mobilisation that spread across Argentina after 1969 opened a process of radicalisation of the industrial working class that was manifested as much in its methods of struggle as in its political content. It comprised factory occupations with self-organised assemblies, active strikes with the abandonment of the factory during the working day, and street mobilisations, as confrontation with the military dictatorship was simultaneously framed around the frequent questioning of the social order. The Cordobazo occurred in this new context in May 1969, as the participation of the grassroots began to re-emerge, frequently overwhelming the union leaders and structures. They faced the acquiescence of the majority of the unions to the capitalist system and limited objectives for a better income distribution. Consequently, ideological formulations and political challenges re-emerged and were disseminated derived from an autonomous perspective of the working class, demanding a role in the construction of an alternative union model that would abolish the prevailing social regime. The most notable experience of this type of workers’ action was the founding of the clasista unions at FIAT, Concord Workers’ Union (SITRAC) and the Materfer Workers’ Union (SITRAM), between 1970 and 1971, who led the momentous mass mobilisations known as the Ferreyrazo and the Viborazo (Mignon).

During these years, the city of Córdoba was placed at the centre of class struggle in Argentina. And it was from this cycle of workers’ conflicts that the Maoist leaders derived their own conclusions and decided that to address the Cordoban working class, the ‘ideological lines’ should be clarified within its organisations. In the case of the VC, the debate centred on the role that a vanguard party should play in the context of spontaneous struggles to liberate the working class. Already, by October 1968, a ‘report in dissent’ from the Córdoba Region stated that ‘… the spontaneous development of the workers movement moves towards subordination to bourgeois ideology in which reformism leads directly to ideological enslavement by the bourgeoisie’ (Communist Vanguard). This led to the Capital Committee (formerly National Leadership) beginning a new rectification campaign, describing as ‘adventurists’ those that prepared this dissenting dossier, and as underestimating the leading role of the working class. In this way, from Buenos Aires the dissidents were reprimanded harshly, and it was established that:

the real task of the revolutionary communists, consists of bring to the fore the spontaneous struggles of the working class and of the rest of the masses, and merging Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung’s thinking, with the natural vanguard of the masses, as it stands in each struggle, and integrating it in its Party … for that we say, getting in line with the spontaneous struggles, is followism and opportunism, and it is negating the leading role of the party; and negating it under the conception of the ‘ideological preparation’, or of the false self-sufficiency and ‘communist’ pedantry, is leftism in form, but in reality rightism and isolationism, that reflects distrust in the masses and a profound fear of the struggles that they waged … that they won’t be under our leadership, as the comrades of the I.D. said. (Communist Vanguard)

For its part, the PCR was inclined towards a less ‘spontaneist’ position than the VC. For its leaders, a period was opening in which the political and organic conditions favoured the construction of a working-class vanguard party. But so as to not fall into the error of ‘leftism’ or ‘opportunism’, it must make a correct reading of the Argentinian social formation through the tasks of consciousness-raising planned and coordinated by the CC. For this reason, it welcomed the campaigns of self-critique launched by the VC, despite its tactical errors:

the Cordobazo of 1969 produced a deep wound in Argentinean society. The same occurred with the great struggles of 1969 and 1970 … It was not just the dictatorship that was shaken by the Cordobazo. The revolutionary left that had emerged seething and contradictory in 1967 and 1968, was overtaken by a gigantic whirlwind … the Communist Vanguard must readjust its line. Now they will conduct a ‘rectification campaign’ to correct the largest errors of the mechanical application of the Chinese experience in Argentina … They will introduce important modifications in their line and in their work … But to not have Marxism-Leninism as a guide; to contrast practically Maoism with each theory; to not create for Argentina a practice created as was by Mao tse-tung in China, they understand the work between the proletariat as an example and emulation by which to bring the ‘old actors’ of the revolution, that will be in the critical zones of the interior … It is the price of abandoning the Leninist characterization of the dependent country, for replacing the modern denomination of dependency in the recently liberated Afro-Asiatic countries: the denomination ‘neo-colonial’. Coherently with this oscillating VC line, in its political practice, between clandestinity that dilutes the workers’ movement of Greater Buenos Aires and the leftism with which they have wanted to influence the Cordoban workers’ movement. (Revolutionary Communist Party)

These positions demonstrate that there was not a homogenous position amongst the Maoist leadership, but rather that these positions were sufficiently oscillating as to lend themselves a free interpretation on the part of their grassroots memberships. In many ways, both organisations coincided in the tactical plan of taking advantage of this cycle of huge strikes in Córdoba to multiply their contacts with the working class, and so to create workers‘ commissions that would be converted into ‘advanced bases’ for the penetration of the proletarian camp. The union between workers and militants, taking place in a political practice that permitted the development of a ‘proletarian ideology’ that substituted the prevailing individualism in the bourgeois conceptualisations, was deeply rooted in the same working class.

Through a denunciation of the rise in production rhythms and the despotism of the bosses in the workplace, the true nature of the capitalist system and a revolutionary alternative would be revealed. To be considered an integrated part of the regime, the activity of activists in the firms was centred against the trade union organisation. And from here radiated the second function of the workers’ commissions, to supplant the bureaucratic structure of the unions. An article for Ediciones No Transar, the mouthpiece of the VC, stated that:

the overall majority of the unions have been converted into empty organization for containing workers, to be subject to the iron leadership of anti-worker cliques, supported and oftentimes promoted by the state and management. The union leaders attempt to convert them into schools of conciliation between classes … What are the workers’ commissions? Clandestine organizations of workers where the most conscious and combative elements come together, which have the objective of developing the economic and political struggle with the perspective of taking power for the working class and the people … We should struggle because these commissions are constituted in all factories, regardless of the union organization in each location … We have to win them over to this new perspective with the labour movement, which will permit them to overcome the problems of union reformism and avoid the corrupt actions of the bureaucracy. In the cases where the basic union organizations are occupied by traitors, the workers’ commissions promote a struggle against management and they will fight to discredit first, and wipe out after, treacherous and submissive leaders … Concluding … the workers’ commissions will allow us to create a revolutionary leadership that will be capable of leading the armed struggle of the people, until the definitive victory, culminating in the Popular Democratic Revolution and assuring the transition to socialism (Ediciones No Transar)

At Perdriel, the factory that IKA-Renault utilised for the manufacture of matrices and machine tools, the PCR was able to form a strong nucleus of union opposition—named the ‘First of May Grouping’—to Elpidio Torres, the long-established leader of the Mechanics and Affiliated Automotive Transport Workers Union of Córdoba (SMATA-C). The occupation of the factory—with hostages—by workers between 12 and 14 May 1970, signified an irredeemable rupture between the grassroots and the union leader, since this conflict was developing not only against the management of the firm, but also against the leadership of the union. But it also represented the emergence of new forms of struggle, derived from outside the union programme. For the PCR, its activity during the strike was decisive, and Perdriel would constitute a model for the emergence of these new forms of struggle. As such, in El Compañero, the following conclusions were reached:

  • Conciliation has shown itself to be the politics of the losers. Instead, violence has emerged as a prerequisite for triumph;
  • May 1969 discovered a class disposed to massive and violent conflict. Perdriel revealed and deepened this path: looking forwards every time in the objectives of struggle and accumulating elements of organisation and clasistaleadership;
  • The First of May ClasistaGrouping has played an important role in the actions of our comrades from Perdriel. Not that we say this out of petty vanity, but emphasising this is key: comrades should unite themselves around the clasista Today, that possibility is developing itself in the First of May Grouping. That is important for new Pedriel (El Compañero).

The idea of constructing a vanguard party through the initiative of the masses permits us to glimpse one of the fundamental principles of the ideological activity that the Maoists tried to deploy in the sphere of the workplace. To a great extent, this shows that the Maoist activists preferred to work in the sphere of practice more than of theory. In other words, giving the lead in struggle to the workers meant nothing else than maintaining that ideology would be progressively elaborated through contact with reality. In this way, violent action of the masses and the acts of insubordination preceded from the instincts of workers’ resistance and not from a determined ‘political line’. This is explained by some activists of the VC and PCR—both of whom had been ‘proletarianised’ in Fiat Concord—to an interviewer of the journal Pasado y Presente:

D (PCR): We learn from our own practice and that of our brother workers … There isn’t the rivalry shown between tendencies as within the student body. Amongst the students, one tendency speaks and deceives the other, amongst the workers it does not. It inclusively coincides on many points, as we would say, all on the same side. Everyone works with much more togetherness.

D (VC): You know what happens amongst the student tendencies, it is that they want to impose the line and that isn’t accepted by the others. But that isn’t put into practice, because these confrontations arise. Here they do not, at best someone can bring an idea from one tendency and it appears as the most acceptable and we accept it. (Pasado y Presente)

Against the bourgeois organisation of work, which is based on hierarchical stratification, the Maoists believed that self-organisation of the workers would open up a wider social and political alternative. The automobile factory occupations in Córdoba were interpreted as nuclei of spontaneous resistance that would question the hierarchy in these businesses, but that should be ‘channelled’ towards the political struggle by the vanguard party. Inasmuch, it was in the workplaces where the struggle between individualism—a product of the division of labour based on private property—and the proletarian perspective was unleashed in the clearest way. In this context, each act of rebellion against the objective divisions put in place by the organisation of work was considered to be ‘consciousness raising’ on the part of the workers. And as in all the stages of class consciousness, tools should be made that would bring the workers success against the ideology of submission, the role of the Maoists would be to promote the workers’ commissions that would develop the struggles to come. This was the central interest of the political interventions in the factories: to show to the workers that they could take control of the task of transforming reality.

It is because of this that the clasista experience of the Cordoban working class was so important for this political current. The generation of a real workers’ alternative to the prevailing union model meant a triumph of class consciousness. But only in the sphere of the concrete, in the reality of the workplace. For the Maoists, a working class without a party could put into practice the maxim of ‘daring to rebel’, but would not undertake the tactical struggle with tenacity and consistency. In this question we can see the significance of ‘workers’ control’ for the ‘Maoist ideologues’. In an article from Nueva Hora they maintain:

Such was the situation in the plants of Fiat in Córdoba, where there was an advance that had been able to impose, through the combative leadership that was also in place, workers’ control of the rhythms of production … Here, even though control didn’t emerge, with the struggle led consequently by a union leadership, the ‘defeat’ permitted the laying bare before the workers the character of this instrument of super-exploitation of ‘rewards’ and to create conditions for the struggle for its elimination, incorporating them in the permanent salary. (Nueva Hora, p. 4)

But it was another question when the prediction of ‘workers’ control’ lacked political purpose:

Some organizations of the left, especially those inspired by Trotskyism, raise the slogan of workers’ control in whatever circumstances. This leads to addressing political activity as ‘pedagogical’ labour, which is from the economistic doctrinarism that tends to characterize these groups. Because it is one thing to propose workers’ control as part of a revolutionary programme, that permits the working class, under the conditions of revolutionary popular power sustained by armed workers, to exercise hegemony over the process, or for propaganda purposes to propose the necessity of workers’ control with revolutionary clasista representatives chosen from the masses, and another to claim to use it as a ‘magic wand’ for the present problem of class struggle … Awareness of workers’ control in itself is not the solution to backwardness and dependency, and less to exploitation, so we refuse to fight indiscriminately for it … We propose, as such, the necessity of workers’ control in our revolutionary programme and suggest struggle for it in each opportunity where the conditions of mobilization and organization of the masses will permit us to instrumentalize it to the end of the immediate and medium-term objectives of the working class. (Nueva Hora, p. 4)

This text shows the existing contradiction between the organisational and ideological conceptualisations of the Maoists, which we can highlight in the following way: ideologically, it is recognised that the workers should lead their own struggles. What was fundamentally novel in Maoism in relation to Leninism was the idea that the working class contained revolutionary aspirations, and that the role of activists would be to gather such aspirations and transform them into political propositions. But according to the party ‘… it intended the political vanguard to systematise and make them conscious to approach the moment of the necessary armed insurrection that opens the path to socialism’ (Nueva Hora, p. 6). That is to say, without a party there would be no revolution. This conclusion shows that the ideological dimension, despite its exaltation of spontaneity and the leadership of struggles on the part of the working class, tended to be subordinated to the problems of organisation and to the decisions of the party leadership. The question has important consequences in the oscillating politics of the VC and the PCR in the near future, when tendencies internal to both parties would question their own organisational structures.

Conclusion: The Popular Limits of Maoism in Argentina?

The relationship of the two leading Maoist political parties in the formation of a revolutionary vanguard amongst the increasingly radical workers of Córdoba after 1969 has been shown to have been rooted in the tensions between their commitment to the spontaneity of working-class mobilisation and desire for the establishment of a political vanguard. By tracing the ideological and organisational developments of these parties it is clear that, despite some important differences in political strategy and practice, their internal disciplinary measures, tactical critiques and deferral to the leading party cadres stymied their influence in building a revolutionary labour movement. Organisationally, they were unable to offer either a demonstrable alternative to the top-down bureaucratic models that prevailed under the guise of Peronism or a viable political party of the working class that could channel this radical political praxis.

Ideologically, however, the Maoist parties played a crucial role in these formative years of the struggle that would envelope Argentina after 1971. The diversity of positions, combined with the prominent commitment to spontaneity in the Maoist current meant that there was a privileged position given to political praxis, to the unique struggles of workers in the city, to their own experiences of the workplace and of that struggle, and to their creative political potential. It is here that we can return to the two questions with which we opened the paper. First, we can identify the development of Maoism in Argentina as an archetypal example of an idea ‘in use’ in the sense proposed by Moulian. Its production and de-production were bound up fundamentally with the interaction between embedded political activists and the workers in the factories. In fact, in many ways, it was the meaning given to the ideas by their practical mobilisation in the workplaces that gave them their real significance during this period. Despite the overarching dominance of Peronism in the Argentinian labour movement, the openness to diverse interpretations, as demonstrated by accounts offered by ‘proleterianised’ militants above, meant there was a flexibility in the use of the third and fourth tier Maoist revolutionary ideas that transcended the meaning ascribed to them by the party leadership.

Second, it was this flexibility and ostensible embeddedness that allowed for their relative popularity in this time of radical tumult in the city of Córdoba and elsewhere in Argentina. As new tactics and strategies of conflict and resistance appeared in the factories and communities across the city, new means by which they could be understood and connected to wider struggles began to be sought. The VC and PCR offered a distinctive vision which, combined with the experiences of workers in the city between 1969 and 1971, meant moving beyond the limits of negotiation and settlement that had persisted for so long and opening the way to the radical transformation of society. The establishment of workers’ commissions, a pragmatic commitment to forms of workers’ control, and support for the new strategies of militant forms of workplace occupation gave credibility to this new vision in the eyes of the young, radicalised workers across the city who directly confronted the old leadership of the labour movement, as well as automobile firms and the state.

It is perhaps this aspect that would provide fruitful ground for further research, taking on the development of this relationship between the Maoist and other leftist political parties and their penetration of the Peronist labour movement in the subsequent period after 1972. The briefly mentioned experience of SMATA under René Salamanca is one of several important experiences of radical left activists shaping the internal practices and mobilisations of the working class across Argentina during this period. The extent and impact of this growing salience of the Maoist left is an important question that should be revisited.

Yet the primacy of the organisational form of the Maoist parties and the centrality of their leading cadres in orchestrating the participation of activists in the workplace highlighted the failure of these Maoist parties to incorporate their ideological critique into their political practice, thus limiting the potential to build upon the emerging ideological affinity. Despite its continual ‘rectification campaigns’ that strengthened its position amongst the workers whose experiences increasingly correlated with the parties’ revolutionary aspirations, the political organisation of the party remained the final point of reference. Consequently, and despite the increasing interpellation of the ideological practices of the Maoist parties amongst workers in Córdoba and beyond, the persistent contradiction between ‘spontaneous’ and ‘organised’ struggle—or between the prioritisation of workplace struggle and the role of the party vanguard—that we have identified, demonstrated the limitations of the Maoist VC and PCR to properly integrate their critique of bourgeois, reformist institutions into their own everyday organisational praxis. The result was such that they inadvertently closed off the space for the formation, founded on powerful ideological tendencies, of a political party of the working class capable of challenging—and overcoming—the prevailing model of trade union organisation and the prevailing social order.